Created by Jenji Kohan
Recently I viewed the entire Netflix series titled Orange is The New Black. This production is based on the book of the same name by Piper Kerman. Kerman, like the main character in this series was sentenced to a one-year prison term for transporting money for a West African drug cartel. She was sentenced ten years after this offence took place.
Kerman’s story is about her life during the thirteen months she spent behind bars. I have not read her book, and according to Kerman, the Netflix series is different in many ways from her story.
The Netflix series portrays a highly educated middle class woman, Piper, who is placed in a prison where the women are mostly working-class. In other words, Piper’s educational background gives her little insight into the rules of the prison, as well as the rules of the prisoners. Because of her ignorance of these rules, Piper experiences one crisis after another.
When Piper begins her prison sentence she is engaged to be married. Her Fiancé has basically the same views as Piper when she’s sentenced. In one of the first visits she has with her Fiancé, Piper gives her initial impressions of her cellmates. This Fiancé is a writer and publishes an article about his visits with Piper. The problem is that Piper’s initial views of her cellmates were insulting stereotypes. As Piper begins to know her cellmates, she sees their genuine humanity. This is just one more crisis she needs to deal with.
There are two scenes that made a distinct impression on me. In one, Piper was dancing suggestively with a former lover. A prison guard had befriended her largely because of her educational background. This prison guard became enraged when he saw Piper dancing because this suggestive dancing with a woman destroyed his preconceived notion of who she was.
As a result, this prison guard sent Piper to solitary confinement. Solitary is the worst form of punishment a prisoner can endure. The recent prison hunger strike in California is largely a protest against the use of solitary confinement.
After experiencing a day of solitary, Piper has the opportunity to confront the abusive prison guard. She berates him, arguing that he is a deeply disturbed person and this is the precise reason why the prison authorities hired him in the first place.
After this outburst, Piper strikes herself in the head thinking of how stupid she has been. Berating a prison guard might only mean that she would be forced to spend more time in solitary.
In another scene, a prisoner had been released, and shortly after she was arrested again. Her re-arrest angered her best friend in the prison. The re-arrested prisoner explained what happened. She said that the people she stayed with had no money and she needed to sleep on the floor. Then, her parole officer demanded that she apply for three jobs every day. She knew she would not be hired for any of these jobs. In this environment, the re-arrested prisoner felt that life behind bars was better than the life she lived outside the prison.
A basic question to be asked about this film is why is it so compelling. Prison is a place we would like to avoid, so why did so many people spend time viewing the prison environment?
A similar question might be asked about the television series Roots that was based on the book of the same name by Alex Haley. Why did so many people view this television series about slavery? In fact, the series Roots was one of the most popular of all time.
My opinion is that the answer to both these questions has a similar answer. The television series Orange is the New Black and Roots aren’t just about prisons and slavery. These are stories about people who are yearning and struggling to be free.
The bottom line is that we all live in an environment where we have very little control. Our employers tell us what to do for all those hours we toil for them. Politicians merely support the interests of their corporate masters. The owners of corporations control the prices we pay, as well as the quality of the commodities we purchase. Therefore, it is only natural that working people find the stories of individuals who struggle to be free compelling.
These are facts that the media moguls clearly do not understand. They argue that they’re only interested in promoting popular films. However, the television series Roots clearly was popular, yet there have been few films that have had a similar theme. We can say the same about several other television series that had working class characters, yet little effort has been made to rework the themes of these films.
We can talk about the series The Honeymooners that told the story of a bus driver, and his friend, a plumber, that was set in the working-class housing where they lived.
We can talk about the series Good Times about a family that lived in a housing project in Chicago.
We can talk about the series Roseanne about a working class family in Illinois, were the woman played a strong role in the family.
We can talk about the series Sanford and Son about the owner of a junkyard in the neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles, California.
These were all popular stories about working-class families. Yet, while the media moguls argue that they are only interested in popular programming, they aren’t interested in producing the kinds of programs that have themes of these films mentioned in this review.
From time to time we do see a film that gives a realistic picture of the lives of working people. This is why I spent the time to watch the series Orange is The New Black because we would all like to live in freedom.